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The pitfall of smart-pointers and implicit data sharing

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The pitfall of smart-pointers and implicit data sharing

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Data sharing between threads is a tricky business. Anyone with any kind of experience with multi-threaded code will give you a 1001 synonyms for “tricky,” most of which you probably wouldn’t use in front of your parents. The problem I’m about the present, however, has zero to do with threading and everything with data sharing and leaky abstraction.

This is a pattern that is used very often when one object is used symmetrically at the beginning and end of another’s lifetime. That is, suppose we have a class that needs to get notified when a certain other class is created, and then again when it’s destroyed. One way to achieve this, is to simply set a flag once to true and a second time to false, in the constructor and destructor of the second object, respectively.

This particular example is in C++ but that's just to illustrate the pattern.

class Object

Object(SomeComponent& comp) : m_component(comp)
    m_component.setOnline(true); // We’re online.

    m_component.setOnline(false); // Offline.

This looks fool-proof, as there is no way the flag will not get set, so long that Object is created and destroyed as intended. Typically, our code will be used as follows:

Object* pObject = new Object(component);
// component knows we are online and processing...

delete pObject; // Go offline and cleanup.

Now let’s see how someone might use this class…

// use smart pointer to avoid memory leaks...
std::auto_ptr<object> apObject;

// Recreate a new object...
apObject.reset(new Object(component));

See a problem? The code fails miserably! And it’s not even obvious. Why? Because there are implicit assumptions and a leaky abstraction at work. Let’s dice the last line…

Object* temp_object = new Object(component); // create new Object
    component.setOnline(true);  // was already true!
delete apObject.ptr; // new instance passed to auto_ptr
  Object::~Object(); // old instance deleted
    component.setOnline(false); // OUCH!
apObject.ptr = temp_object;

See what happened?

Both authors wrote pretty straightforward code. They couldn’t have done better without making assumptions beyond the scope of their work. This is a pattern that is very easy to run into, and it’s far from fun. Consider how one could have detected the problem in the first place. It’s not obvious. The flag was set correctly, but sometimes would fail! That is, whenever there is an Object instance, and we create another one to replace the first, the flag ends up being false. The first time we create an Object, all works fine. The second time, component seems to be unaware of us setting the flag to true.

Someone noticed the failure, assumed the flag wasn’t always set, or may be incorrectly set, reviewed the class code and sure enough concluded that all was correct. Looking at the use-case of Object we don’t necessarily run through the guts of auto_ptr. After all, it’s a building block; a pattern; an abstraction of a memory block. One would take a quick look, see that an instance of Object is created and stored in an auto_ptr. Again, nothing out of the ordinary.

So why did the code fail?

The answer is on multiple levels. First and foremost we had a shared data that wasn’t reference counted. This is a major failing point. The shared data is a liability because it’s not in the abstraction of object instances. The very same abstraction assumptions that auto_ptr makes; it points to independent memory blocks. What we did is we challenged the assumptions that auto_ptr makes and failed to safe-guard our implicitly-shared data.

In other words, we had two instances of Object at the same time, but the flag we were updating had only two states: true and false. Thereby, it had no way of tracking anything beyond a single piece of information. In our case, we were tracking whether we were online or not. The author of Object made very dangerous assumptions. First and foremost, the assumption that the flag’s state is equivalent to Object’s lifetime proved to be very misleading. Because this raised the question of whether or not more than one instance of Object can exist. That question would have avoided a lot of problems down the road, however it wasn’t obvious and perhaps never occurred to anyone.

Second, even if we assume that there can logically be one instance of Object, without proving that it’s impossible to create second instances by means of language features, we are bound to misuse, as clearly happened here. And we can’t blame the cautious programmer who used auto_ptr either.

If something shouldn’t happen, prevent it by making it impossible to happen.


The solutions aren’t that simple. An obvious solution is to take out the flag setting calls from within Object and call them manually. However this defies the point of having them where one couldn’t possibly forget or miss calling them, in case of a bug. Consider the case when we should set the flag to false when Object is destroyed, but this happens due to an exception, which automatically destroys the Object instance. In such a case, we should catch the exception and set the said flag to false. This, of course, is never as straight forward as one would like, especially in complex and mature production code. Indeed, using the automatic guarantees of the language (in this case calling the ctor and dtor automatically) are clearly huge advantages that we can’t afford to ignore.

One possible solution is to prevent the creation of Object more than once at a time. But this can be very problematic. Consider the case when we have multiple component instances, and we are interested in a different Object per component, not a globally unique Object instance.

As I said, no easy solution. The solution that I’d use is the next best thing to instance creation prevention. Namely, to count the number of instances. However, even if we reference count the Objects, or even the calls to setting the flag, in all events, we must redefine the contract. What does it mean to have multiple instance of Object and multiple calls to set the flag to true? Does it mean we still have one responsible object and what guarantees that? What if there are other constraints, might some other code assume only one instance of Object when that flag is set?

All of the questions that flow from our suggested solutions demand us to define, or redefine, the contracts and assumptions of our objects. And whatever solution we agree on, it will have its own set of requirements and perhaps even assumption, if we’re not too careful.


Using design patterns and best practices are without a doubt highly recommended. Yet ironically sometimes they may lead to the most unexpected results. This is no criticism of using such recommendations from experienced specialists and industry leaders, rather, it’s a result of combining abstractions in such a way that not only hides some very fundamental assumptions in our design and/or implementation, but even creates situations where some of the implicit assumptions of our code are challenged. The case presented is a good example. Had the developers not used the ctor/dtor pattern for setting the said flag, or had they not used auto_ptr, no such problem would’ve arisen. Albeit, they would have had other failure points, as already mentioned.

Admittedly, without experience it’s near impossible to catch similar cases simply by reading code or, preferably, while designing. And inexperience has no easy remedy. But if someone figures out a trick, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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Published at DZone with permission of Ashod Nakashian, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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